November 2016: Asbestos Action and Reaction
Australias long-term and widespread use of asbestos has led to one of the worlds highest incidences of asbestos-related diseases. Although some of the asbestos came from domestic sources such as the crocidolite (blue asbestos) mine in Western Australia (WA) and chrysotile (white asbestos) mines in New South Wales, demand was such that asbestos was also imported for incorporation into homes, factories, schools, hospitals and public buildings. Despite the adoption of legislation banning asbestos in 2003, toxic materials continue to enter the country as evinced by this summers scandal over the discovery of asbestos-containing building products at a new childrens hospital in Perth.
For some years, Australian campaigners have designated November as Asbestos Awareness month. This year was no exception with a slew of formal events, outreach initiatives, public meetings and information sessions held throughout the country by asbestos victims support groups, campaigning bodies, academics, trade unionists and others. For the 32nd time, the Perth-based Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) marked the month in both innovative and traditional ways including a morning tea for nurses on November 22 during which copies of the ADSAs new Mesothelioma Handbook were distributed; outreach sessions at the Royal Perth Hospital on November 21, 23 and 24; public viewings of a new multimedia exhibition about the deadly legacy of the Wittenoom asbestos mine at its Osborne Park office and the Societys 21st ecumenical service of remembrance. The 2016 church service took place on November 25th at the Redemptorist Monastery in North Perth. As always, the event attracted a capacity congregation of people whose lives had been rent asunder by deadly asbestos exposures.
(Photo: courtesy of ADSA Inc.)
Several aspects of the ceremony reflected upon the 50th anniversary of the cessation of mining at WAs infamous Wittenoom asbestos mine. A new song entitled The Wittenoom Lament was commissioned for the service and the keynote speaker Hayden Stephens spoke of the painting created by his father-in-law Jan Senbergs entitled the Blue Angel of Wittenoom:
The Blue Angel of Wittenoom the angel of death. I find it an incredibly moving portrait and I sense that many in this congregation have been visited by this blue angel of death in some way.
Jan SENBERGS 1939, Riga, Latvia
Blue angel of Wittenoom 1988
Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia
As always, the most moving part of the service is when members of the congregation accept the opportunity to light a candle of remembrance in honor of their loved ones. As they queue up patiently down all three aisles of the church, the music and the fellowship of the ADSA family provide an atmosphere of serenity and calm.
(Photo: courtesy of ADSA Inc.)
Photographs of many of those whose lives have been lost to asbestos appear upon the screen above the altar as hundreds of white votive candles are placed carefully in communal boxes, the simple act of lighting the candle bringing solace and peace.
Throughout November, the everyday work of the Society continued with members being interviewed, patients being seen, files being progressed and work continuing on the next big project: the Christmas picnic. Alas, my trip came to an end just days before the picnic but I was able to assist in erecting the Christmas tree in the ADSAs office on November 29. Underlining the Societys solidarity with the global campaign for asbestos justice, the ADSA staff held the iconic banner of their Italian colleagues which called for: Eternit Giustizia (Eternit Justice).
The ADSA has been supporting Australias asbestos injured for over thirty-five years. Its effectiveness and worth are beyond doubt. Contrast the objectives of this organization with those of the International Alliance of Trade Union Organizations Chrysotile (the Alliance) which on November 14, 2016 held an asbestos love in in Moscow of industry supporters from stakeholder countries including Russia, Kazakhstan, Brazil, India and Mexico. In a press release headlined Chrysotile Workers from all over the World Gathered in Moscow,1 the Alliance spouted the usual industry propaganda and denunciations: The anti-asbestos campaign is, the text asserted a great obstacle on the road to development of the chrysotile cement industry the countries of South-East Asia are successfully using chrysotile cement to contribute to raising living standards and development of industry.
I am in no doubt that the hundreds of people at the service in Perth would disagree with these statements. Those who mourn the loss of loved ones to asbestos are unanimous in their belief that asbestos use must end in order to protect humanity from further avoidable deaths. The ADSA is fuelled by compassion; the Alliance is driven by greed. I know whose side I am on. What about you?
December 9, 2016
1 Press Release. Chrysotile Workers from all over the World Gathered in Moscow. November 14, 2016.